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How the Wellesley "you're not special" graduation speech missed the point

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  June 19, 2012 10:37 AM

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By now, many if not most of us have heard about the Wellesley High School graduation speech, the "You're not special" speech that has gone remarkably viral. Since a colleague sent me a link, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.

Teacher David McCullough Jr. told the graduates,

"Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you...you're nothing special."

There was more to the speech, of course. He wasn't dissing the graduates; his remarks were much about how we Americans have "come to love accolades more than genuine achievements. We have come to see them as the point." B is the new C. Starting a clinic in Guatemala is more about something to put on a college application than helping Guatemalans. Accolades, he said, should be a byproduct, not the point.

He said to the graduates, "I urge you to do whatever you do for no other reason than you love it and believe in its importance."

I couldn't agree with him more. As I approach fifty, that describes how I've come to see my life and make choices. I love being a mother, a wife, a doctor and a writer. I think they are important. I figure that if I try my best to do a good job at them, everything will fall into place. If I miss out on something because I'm too busy doing these things, it wasn't meant to be mine. This is the leap of faith I am fully willing to take.

But it it a leap of faith my children are ready or willing to take?

I went to Princeton and to Harvard Medical School. I don't think any of my children will go to either (especially since so far nobody wants to be a doctor--I definitely haven't made the job look appealing enough), because they won't get in. Heck, I wouldn't get in to either one if I were applying now. My son was wait-listed at Princeton despite an application that put mine to shame. I'm not sad for him--he has been happier at the College of William and Mary than he would ever have been at Princeton--but the process was a bit of an eye-opener. He was shy a Guatemalan clinic or two.

Each of my children has real strengths and interests; some of them conform better to mainstream ideas of success than others. I want nothing more than to tell them to follow their passions, to not worry about having perfect grades or building impressive resumes, but the harsh reality is that without those grades and resumes certain doors get closed; certain choices no longer exist. And I want my children to have every possible choice.

As a pediatrician working in Boston, I've watched choices drift or be snatched away from so many of my patients growing up in low-income families and neighborhoods. I've watched the separation of the classes get played out and perpetuated in real-life, up-close, heartbreaking ways. This isn't just about giving out giving out fewer trophies and doing less cosseting. This is about--about choices and who gets them and who doesn't.

That's the thing about McCullough's speech: he made it sound simple, but it's not. It's not just a matter of saying, "Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view" when the path to the mountain is clogged with people with the latest climbing gear carrying flags. This isn't something we can just tell our kids. It's something we need to tell ourselves, all of us. Somehow--and I have no idea how--we need to change our culture so that it rewards genuine passion, genuine hard work and genuine achievement instead of accolades.

Maybe we just have to start and hope that others join. Maybe the fact that the speech went viral is a sign that there are some like-minded people out there.

I hope so.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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